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Homeless will have a front row seat to the RNC

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Charity's 'agenda'
Catholic Charities is hoping this billboard, and a similar banner hanging across the street from the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, will raise awareness of homelessness and poverty.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

Ralph Olson doesn't get around like he used to. He once was a cab driver, but he didn't take care of his diabetes. After a while, he had trouble walking and he couldn't see well enough to drive. He lost his job and his place to live.

For the last two and a half years, he's been living at Mary Hall, a Catholic Charities shelter in downtown St. Paul. It's right in the middle of the security zone that will ring the Xcel Energy Center during the upcoming Republican National Convention. 

Rev. John Estrem, Catholic Charities
Rev. John Estrem launched a public awareness campaign on homelessness and poverty from the East Side of St. Paul today, just weeks ahead of the Republican National Convention in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

"They say they're not going to allow bikes down in and I'm wondering, you know, how its going to be with my scooter," he says.

And he's not the only one worried. St. Paul's homeless community will have some of the nation's wealthiest and most powerful as next door neighbors starting September 1st. There are still a lot of questions about how they'll get along, Olson says.

"A lot of the issues that are bothering the homeless community right now, is how the people that are coming in to St. Paul for the convention, how they're going to perceive them. That's what they're basically worried about. Their privacy. Or, you know, being caught up in one of the protests and they're not a part of it, but they're standing there."

Catholic Charities of the Twin Cities will do what it can to make even the homeless feel at home during the convention.

"We expect this, overall, to be a positive experience."

The Dorothy Day Center will run round the clock, rather than shutting down several times a day as it does now, according to Father John Estrem, CEO of the church group. 

There will be extra programming to give people an alternative to the political activity around the convention. There will also be a tent in the center's parking lot to provide extra space if the homeless are crowded out of public areas near the Xcel Center. 

A storage facility in the Midway area is offering cheap space for the homeless to move their belongings away from the crowds and security restrictions downtown.   The Salvation Army center a few blocks away will also expand its programs to give people an alternative to the activity around the X.

But Catholic Charities isn't shrinking from the spotlight the Republican National Convention is bringing to their front door, either.

They've got a banner calling for food, shelter and dignity on the front of the Dorothy Day Center. There's a billboard on Interstate 94, just east of downtown St. Paul, that says the same thing.

Ralph Olson, homeless guy
Ralph Olson is a leader of Voices of Change, a St. Paul homeless group. He is concerned about the impact of the Republican National Convention on the homeless.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

Estrem talked about preparations for the convention standing under that billboard.

"The challenges? We know how to do that. And we've been working really closely with the city and the RNC. Had great cooperation with the Secret Service and other folks as well.  And we're meeting those challenges. The opportunity is also great. And that's the trade off of being center stage in the city, is we often get opportunities to address issues in the city that we wouldn't get if we were around the corner."

City and church officials both hope that will remain true when the Republican convention opens next month, although there are also contingency plans in the works if the situation changes. 

A congregation on nearby Dayton's Bluff has offered its church as a backup location if federal officials have to expand their security cordon during the convention. 

The convention opens  in 19 days